Oct 102016

gene-editingby Melody Meyer (Organic Matters)

In an early morning jaunt to Sacramento last week my car was rear ended.  I serve on the California Organic Products Advisory Committee (who by the way are looking for new members), and was on my way to attend a subcommittee meeting when boom—a fine young man rammed me in the rear. As I recuperate from the trauma, I wax philosophical and wonder why this happened and what the long term unintended consequences will be. The same ruminations can be applied to the novel gene editing techniques that are racing towards us with accelerating speed. Are we all on a genetic collision course with unintended consequences? 

As I mull over the details of that 5am departure, I wonder how two strangers woke up, made coffee, and rambled into their cars just to crash into each other at that moment in space and time. What trajectory was I launched on when I circled back and grabbed my lunch bag? What velocity did I drive just so I arrived at that spot for him to anoint me with pounding steel; up the bottom of the carriage so to speak?

The same musings can be mulled over for many of the new gene editing techniques that aren’t classified as GMO’s. From the first time we stood up on the Savanna and picked up that primal tool, were we fatefully launched on a trajectory course that would end in manipulating the very core of life itself? Our propensity for tinkering coupled with our big brains has landed us now in a godlike place where we can alter the very genetic code of life. Will there be unintended consequences?

History (and my sore neck) tells me that there always will be unintended consequences. If you look at the history of DDT, Agent Orange and TNT, they all have had negative accidental aftereffects. We now know that the rise of (traditionally) genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant crops has resulted in a huge increase in herbicide use and the rise of superweeds as a result. Chuck Benbrook has made that point many times.

The hottest and most cutting-edge GMO techniques aren’t even recognized as GMO’s. Scientists can now precisely edit unique traits within one species by using a technique called Crispr-cas9, which works like a pair of molecular scissors, snipping away this trait and inserting yet another. In fact the technology goes so far that it can now force the trait to persist forever more by using “gene drives.” Entire populations can now be genetically altered to always inherit that unique trait or even make the entire species crash. Sound like science fiction? Nope it’s here today and throttling towards us at breakneck speed.

My young driver was good hearted and intended me no harm. Just so the scientists working on these novel techniques are well intentioned mavens of research and genius, hoping to make the world a better place. Gene drives have been proposed as a technique for changing wild populations, for instance to combat mosquitoes that spread malaria and zika, to control invasive species, or to eliminate herbicide and or pesticide resistance in superweeds.

These cutting-edge gene editing techniques could potentially block the inheritance of many diseases such as cystic fibrosis. They could also lead to custom-made children where parents pick and choose the traits of their progeny.

The problem I have is that none of these techniques are regulated or transparently tested for safety. In fact many of these techniques are readily available and easily accessible to anyone who has access to the internet and half a propensity for scientific tinkering. A report by Nuffield Council on Bioethics warns that the simplicity and low cost of tools to edit the genetic code means that “garage scientists” pose a potential risk from the release of GM bugs. Sounds like unintended consequences barreling down upon us.

The report goes on to state and I quote “Genome-edited organisms (as with all genetically modified organisms or GMOs) pose a possible risk of harm to those handling them, and to others or to natural ecosystems if they are released or escape from controlled environments. Most countries have layers of regulation which cover the handling, transport and release of GMOs, but there are concerns about how these can be managed outside of regulated environments.”

Genetically modifying plants is far from harmless as this article points out. “Techniques of genetic modification, old or new, are not fully mastered: if they do allow bringing some new traits to a living organism (such as herbicide tolerance), they also produce unexpected modifications: ‘off-targets’ effects caused by the techniques such as mutations and epigenetic mutations, because of the techniques implemented during the process.”

What do we do now that we are crashing through the penetrable walls of subatomic DNA barriers with no regulation or oversight? Should we step outside the vehicle and access the possible damage? We are no longer messing around with a lone area of our ecosystem but potentially the very building blocks of our genetic heritage and legacy. We can and are impacting life itself on the planet.

The first path to regulations is to become aware of the speeding carriage barreling towards us. Friends of The Earth and ETC Group recently published the Shopper’s Guide to Synthetic Biology to help consumers like you avoid the new wave of GMOs in food and cosmetics, and find truly natural and sustainable options.

The National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board are requesting comments on whether these new techniques should be allowed in organic production.

The unintended consequences of this new technological collision course must be explored and challenged. If you need a license to drive a car, shouldn’t you have a license and some rules of the road to do gene editing? Shouldn’t we have safety tests, belts and cameras in place to assure we don’t crash our genetic inheritance?

Let’s urge governments worldwide to put some restraints on these new technologies while putting processes in place to evaluate those we cannot yet dream of. The speeding vehicle is coming.

Oct 032016
Waag Society/Flickr CC

Waag Society/Flickr CC

by Eric Meunier (Inf’OGM)

Several new techniques of genetic modification (also called NBT) are currently being discussed worldwide to decide whether to define products obtained from them as GMOs and to regulate them as such, or not. Following a parliamentary hearing in France [1] in April 2016, Inf’OGM tries to figure out some of the potential risks linked to the use of any technique of genetic modification on a plant cells culture.

Techniques of genetic modification, old or new, are not fully mastered : if they do allow bringing some new traits to a living organism (such as herbicide tolerance), they also produce unexpected modifications : ‘off-targets’ effects caused by the techniques of genetic modification themselves as they do not occur in the targeted area of the genome and unintended effects (mutations and epigenetic mutations, also called epimutations) due to other techniques implemented during the different steps of the process.

On April 2016 the 6th, echoing Yves Bertheau’s remarks back in late 2015 (a former member of the French High Council of Biotechnology (HCB) after having resigned), Jean-Christophe Pagès, Head of the HCB’s scientific committee, told the French Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology Assessment about Crispr/Cas 9 that “the difficulties to use it should not be forgotten […] especially regarding in vivo use on animals as you need to provide a matrix and you usually face issues linked to the process of insertion into the cell. In vitro culture is much easier and this is why the majority of its uses are in research and, eventually, organisms are regenerated from in vitro culture. And here, it indeed concerns some plants”… A surprising comment as, after a careful reading, the HCB’s scientific committee document dated from February 2016 the 4th – now downgraded to an interim report status after having been presented by the Scientific Committee as an advice to the French government – do not state such difficulties in vivo, or ease in vitro.

Inf’OGM provides here in a first series of two papers as an overview of the unintended and uncontrolled effects occurring along the steps of a genetic modification process. We will focus in these first paper on the process of insertion step as quoted by Jean-Christophe Pagès, aiming at bringing into a cell the requisite material to generate the intended genetic modification. We will also focus on preliminary steps which are indeed stressful and thus induce mutations and epigenetic mutations (see the box below).

In a next wave of papers we will focus on the unexpected changes called ‘off-targets’ due to the NBT techniques themselves. Several scientific papers will be rapidly cited to help the reader to go more in depth in the details.

Mutation, epigenetic mutation (epimutation) = what is it ?

A mutation is usually defined as a change in the genetic information of an organism, whether it be as DNA or RNA. Mutations are hereditary. They can be “silenced”, meaning without any observable consequences on the organism’s metabolism. They can also change the expression of one or several genes, modifying the metabolism. Epigenetic mutations belong to the class of mutation affecting the expression of a genetic sequence but which are not due to a change in the nucleotide sequence itself. They can be due to a change of the chemical composition of DNA nucleotides or chromatin.

Preparing the cells to be transformed

Before being able to bring some material into the cells (the process of insertion Jean-Christophe Pagès refers to), the first step is to prepare those cells. The lab workers will have to break cells wall, maybe even to remove them entirely. Plant cells without walls – called protoplasts – become transformable and engineers can now bring into those cells tools such as large proteins (such as Cas9), RNAs and/or coding DNAs. But, as Yves Bertheau explains, this creation of protoplasts induces mutations and epimutations, a widely observed phenomenon according to scientific literature [2].

Cell culture induces mutations

The second step is to cultivate those protoplasts. But culturing cells generates also mutations and epigenetic mutations. The scientific literature surprisingly shows that the mechanisms through which those mutations and epigenetic mutations appear is still little-known despite decades of use [3]. This phenomenon, called somaclonal variation, is such that it was previously used by seed companies to create the needed “genetic diversity” to “breed” plants according to the seed companies’ usual language. The French Association for Seeds and Seedlings (GNIS, “a privately funded organization which delivers public services”) points out that “somaclonal variation is the observed modification in some cells after a long cycle of in vitro culture without regeneration. These are therefore no longer identical to the parent plant. This variation can be due to a modification in the nucleus genome or in the genome of cytoplasmic plastids [4].

In other words, plants obtained from those cells have different characteristics. GNIS provides one last interesting detail : “the obtained modifications of traits are barely stable and not always found in the regenerated plant or its progeny”. Why ? The occurrence of other modifications (epigenetic mutations) can make those mutations disappear [5]… As Yves Bertheau tells us, “in such conditions, it looks rather difficult to foresee the impacts this step of cell culture could perform when using a new technique of genetic modification”.

The process of insertion, at last… also called vectorization

Once the cells are prepared and cultivated, we are ready to bring in the biological material to generate the intended modification. Depending on the techniques, this material may be proteins and / or genetic sequences such as RNAs or encoding DNAs (oligonucleotides, plasmids, virus…) – the most frequently used molecules for plants. Bringing this material into the cells needs merely making large holes in the membranes (cytoplasmic and nuclear) of the cell. But, as Yves Bertheau explains us, making such holes induce once again mutations and epimutations [6]. The researcher considers thus impossible to draw a general grid for risk assessment. A choice must be made among several techniques of insertion, different types of material, the genetic sequences to be introduced and the species targeted. Therefore only a case by case analysis for such GMOs would allow the assessment of all the potential risks linked to unintended effects.

HCB’s scientific committee’s interim report says nothing about those mutations

In a scientific paper of 2011, scientists estimated that 35% of all the observed unintended effects following the genetic modification by transgenesis of Senia rice were due to the cells transformation process itself [7]. The phenomenon is therefore not negligible.

Surprisingly, and despite the hearing of its Head in front of the OPECST, the HCB’s Scientific Committee did not deal with those risks in its interim report on risks linked to the new techniques [8]. If the process of insertion is indeed described in the appendix for each technique, it’s only to outline the tools used for a technique and to describe how the material is brought into the cells. Possible mutations and epimutations arising from the different transformation steps are not covered. As the HCB scientific committee is in charge of risk evaluation for the French government, we would have expected this committee to discuss and provide explanations, not to disregard such documented issues. Especially considering that the transformation process – to refer to the only point present in the interim report – doesn’t seem to be fully controlled depending on the techniques. The scientific committee even states that for the oligodirected mutagenesis technique (OdM), “many molecules or molecular mixtures are currently tested to improve the process of insertion which works fairly well in vitro but not well on full organisms (Liang et al., 2012) [9]


[2« Stress induces plant somatic cells to acquire some features of stem cells accompanied by selective chromatin reorganization », Florentin, A. et al. (2013), Developmental Dynamics, 242(10), 1121-1133 ;
« Developmental stage specificity and the role of mitochondrial metabolism in the response of Arabidopsis leaves to prolonged mild osmotic stress », Skirycz, A. et al., (2010). Plant Physiology, 152(1), 226-244 ;
« Arabidopsis mesophyll protoplasts : a versatile cell system for transient gene expression analysis », Yoo, al. (2007). Nat. Protocols, 2(7), 1565-1572.

[3« Cell culture-induced gradual and frequent epigenetic reprogramming of invertedly repeated tobacco transgene epialleles », Krizova, K. et al., (2009). Plant Physiology, 149(3), 1493-1504 ;
« Extended metAFLP approach in studies of tissue culture induced variation (TCIV) in triticale », Machczyńska, J. et al., (2014). Molecular Breeding, 34(3), 845-854 ;
« Tissue culture-induced novel epialleles of a Myb transcription factor encoded by pericarp color1 in maize », Rhee, Y. et al., (2010). Genetics, 186(3), 843-855 ;
« Transformation-induced mutations in transgenic plants : analysis and biosafety implications », Wilson, A.K. et al., (2006). Biotechnol Genet Eng Rev, 23(1), 209-238 ;
« A whole-genome analysis of a transgenic rice seed-based edible vaccine against cedar pollen allergy », Kawakatsu, T. et al., (2013).. DNA Research 20, 623-631 ;
« Recent progress in the understanding of tissue culture-induced genome level changes in plants and potential applications », Neelakandan et al.,, 2012,. Plant Cell Reports, 31(4), 597-620

[5« Meiotic transmission of epigenetic changes in the cell-division factor requirement of plant cells », Meins, F. et al., (2003). Development, 130(25), 6201-6208.

[6« Cell biology : delivering tough cargo into cells », Marx, V. (2016). Nat Meth, 13(1), 37-40.

[7« Only half the transcriptomic differences between resistant genetically modified and conventional rice are associated with the transgene », Montero, M. et al., (2011). Plant Biotechnology Journal, 9(6), 693-702.

Sep 302016

Movements & Emerging Technologies Webinars present:

Are GMOs 2.0 in your food and cosmetics?

An introduction to synthetic biology for shoppers

Companies are sneaking new GMO foods into our food and cosmetics: gene-silenced apples, a GMO potato, synthetic biology flavors and fragrances are on their way to market, or already there — and they may even be marketed as “natural.” This webinar will tell you everything you need to know to avoid the new wave of GMOs and find truly natural and sustainable options.

Host: Stacy Malkan co-director of US Right to Know


Dana Perls Senior Food and Technology Campaigner, Friends of the Earth 
Michael Hansen
, Ph.D. Senior Scientist, Consumers Union 
Ravin Donald, Ph.D.
Vice President of Technical Services at Frontier Co-op 
Lisa Stokke
Co-Founder and Associate Director of Food Democracy Now!

This webinar took place on Wednesday 5th October 2016

The Movements and Emerging Technologies (M&ET) webinar series is supported by a grant from the European Union Framework 7 Programme’s SYNENERGENE Project.


Sep 302016

HCC Public Information Office via Flickr CC

by Ian Sample (the Guardian)

Nuffield Council on Bioethics report finds materials to perform basic experiments are now available to ‘garage scientists’

The simplicity and low cost of tools to edit the genetic code means “garage scientists” – or amateurs with some skill – can now perform their own experiments, posing a potential risk from the release of GM bugs, a new report suggests.

In a report published on Friday, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said that the rise in precision “gene editing” tools had revolutionised biomedical research over the past ten years and could potentially have a dramatic impact on human society.

But it found that the materials needed to perform basic experiments were available to enthusiasts outside academia and established labs. This year, one firm began to sell a kit for £100 to DIY biology interest groups that allowed them to render the common soil microbe, E coli, resistant to the antibiotic streptomycin.

The report goes on to say that genetic technology has become so powerful that nations need to decide whether or not doctors should ever be allowed to modify the human species.

While the creation of GM humans is not on the horizon yet, the risks and benefits of modifying a person’s genome – and having those changes pass on to future generations – are so complex that they demand urgent ethical scrutiny, the review found.

“This could transform our range of expectations and ambitions about how humans control our world,” said Andrew Greenfield, a geneticist and chair of the Nuffield Council’s working group. “Although most uses so far have been in research, the potential applications seem to be almost unlimited.”

Genome editing has become a common tool in laboratories around the world. The most common technique, called Crispr-cas9, works like a pair of molecular scissors. It is essentially a pair of enzymes that can be designed to find and remove a specific strand of DNA inside a cell, and then replace it with a new piece of genetic material. The procedure can be used to rewrite single letters of genetic code and even whole genes.

The report found that gene editing could potentially block the inheritance of cystic fibrosis and more than 4000 other known conditions caused by single faulty genes. But the technique may also drive profound changes in farming, the report found, where the possibilities range from swine fever-resistant pigs, chickens that only give birth to females, and hornless cows that could be housed in smaller spaces. Because Crispr-cas9 does not leave any traces, meat and other products from GM animals could find its way to market without being labelled. Meanwhile, the simplicity and low cost of Crispr-cas9 means amateurs in the home can now perform their own experiments.

Altering the genetic makeup of a human embryo and transplanting it into a woman is banned in Britain, but there are ethical arguments in favour of the procedure, such as preventing children from inheriting genes that cause fatal diseases. But if the procedure were allowed, some fear it could open the door to what the report calls “consumer” or “liberal eugenics” where children are modified to suit their parents’ preferences.

“We’ve identified human reproductive applications as an area that demands urgent ethical scrutiny and we must consider carefully how to respond to this possibility now well before it becomes a practical choice,” said Karen Yeung, a law professor at King’s College London, and co-author of the report.

Scientists have already begun to edit the genes of human embryos, but only for basic research. Earlier this year, researchers in China tried to add HIV resistance to human IVF embryos which had been donated to science when tests found them to be unviable. The experiments did not achieve their goal, but highlighted how difficult the procedure was likely to be in humans.

In 2015 another Chinese team became the first in the world to edit human embryos, when they tried, and failed, to modify a gene that causes beta-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder. Again, the work was performed on abnormal IVF embryos donated to research.

From a purely medical standpoint, there are good reasons to correct faulty genes at the embryo stage, because the defective DNA is then erased from every cell in the body. The risk comes when the modification has unintended consequences. This could harm not only the child, but their future children, because the altered gene would be in their sperm or eggs.

In light of the report, the Nuffield Council has set up two new reviews to look specifically at the ethics of gene editing in human reproduction and livestock. One major question will be where to draw the line on what is acceptable if gene editing is approved in humans, in principle. It may be morally acceptable to correct a faulty gene that will definitely pass on a fatal disease to a child. But what about a gene that has a chance of raising by 10% a person’s risk of heart disease or Alzheimer’s? The report notes that in the future, it may be possible to enhance people with genes from other organisms, for example to improve night vision and sense of smell.

“It is only right that we acknowledge where this new science may lead and explore the possible paths ahead to ensure the one on which we set out today is the right one,” said Yeung.

Sep 292016

biochem_gloves_vb_cc_by_rdecomby Stacy Malkan (HuffPost)

Silenced genes, edited genes, algae engineered to produce compounds that taste like food: new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) made with these experimental techniques are making their way to your dinner plate. It’s the next wave of genetic engineering, or GMOs 2.0.

Will we know if they’re in our food?

The new GMO labeling law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama has been widely panned by consumer groups because it allows companies to use QR codes or 800 numbers in place of plain English on labels.

But even worse news for our right to know what’s in our food: vague wording in the new law opens the door for industry pressure on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt many – possibly even most – GMOs from labeling at all.

To learn more about GMOs 2.0 and whether these foods will be labeled, I spoke with Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union.

Q: GMOs have been in our food for over 20 years but they have recently been changing. Can you describe what’s new?

MH: What’s new is they are using different methods to cut and change specific gene sequences. There are two basic types: gene silencing techniques such as RNA interference (RNAi) that can turn particular genes off; and gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, TALEN or zinc fingered nucleuses used to cut DNA in order to make small genetic changes or insert genetic material.

These methods are more precise than the old methods, but there can still be off-target and unintended effects. When you alter the genetics of living things they don’t always behave as you expect. This is why it’s crucial to thoroughly study health and environmental impacts, but these studies aren’t required.

Also, just because the techniques are different doesn’t mean the traits will be. The old method of genetic engineering was used mostly to make plants resist herbicides, and increase sales of herbicides. The new gene editing techniques will probably be used in much the same way, but there are some new twists.

Q: What GMO 2.0 foods are on the market now?

MH: Non-browning GMO apples are growing in fields now and may be in stores next year. A GMO potato is in stores now but we don’t know where. The potato was engineered with RNAi to not turn brown on exposure to air and to produce lower levels of acrylamide (a carcinogen) when fried or baked.

Canola genetically engineered with CRISPR to tolerate herbicides may already be in canola oils. Synthetic biology vanilla flavor and stevia are also in products – these were produced using genetically engineered yeast – and they may even be marketed as “natural.”

Companies are not telling consumers these products are GMO; instead they are using terms like “fermentation derived” to describe ingredients made with synthetic biology. When you see that term on products, or a “non-browning” apple or potato, assume that means genetically engineered.

Q: Congress just passed a GMO labeling law, but the language is written in a way that could be interpreted to exempt many GMO foods from labeling. Can you explain the problem?

MH: The first problem is that the law says genetically engineered DNA must be present. That means the law exempts highly processed foods such as high fructose corn syrup, GMO beet sugar, purified oils and some engineered artificial flavors and spices because the identifiable engineered DNA is degraded or removed. Whole classes of soft drinks won’t be labeled even if they contain high levels of genetically engineered corn syrup. Nothing can be done about that now.

The second problem we can do something about. The law exempts foods if the genetic modification could otherwise be achieved via conventional breeding or found in nature. It all comes down to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “modification.” It could be defined in a way that includes nothing, though hopefully that won’t happen because there would be such an uproar.

Modification should be defined as specific genetic sequences that are altered. If USDA defines it that way, these new GMO 2.0 techniques should be covered. But that is going to be a huge fight and it could end up that a lot of GMO foods fall through the cracks and don’t have to be labeled.

On the plus side, USDA has decided that meat, poultry and eggs can be labeled as non-GMO if they come from animals that are not fed with genetically engineered foods, and they leave it up to an independent third-party standard. We need to make sure that standard is created in an open transparent manner and consistent with international standards.

The next step is that consumer groups need to flood the USDA with comments. USDA is accepting public comments until Oct. 23 and Consumers Union will be posting our comments soon to help inform others of the issues at stake.

Q: Is genetic engineering the future of our food?

MH: No I don’t think so. When you look at the millennial generation, there is a sea change in how people view food. Previously people asked if it was cheap. Now there is a huge interest in how food is produced and where it comes from. People are trying to get food as fresh and natural as possible. They want food grown more sustainably, more locally and in less industrialized conditions.

This is why we see so many companies announcing they are getting rid of antibiotics, artificial colors and ingredients, GMOs and other foods produced in industrialized conditions. That’s why these new GMO technologies may not have a great future; most of them are designed for industrial food systems.

There is global agreement in the World Agriculture Report that industrial agriculture and genetic engineering are not the answer for the future of food. The answer is ecologically rational farming systems.

Biotechnology by its very nature is focusing on one or a few genes or specific traits whereas truly ecological agriculture is focused on whole systems. That’s the direction consumers want and where we need to go for health and sustainability.

But ecological agriculture is not something that corporations can easily monetize, and not something they can patent and own. Companies are pushing GMOs because of the profit margin.

Q: What, in your view, is the responsible path forward for genetic engineering?

MH: Along with hundreds of other scientists and academics, I signed the statement “No scientific consensus on GMO safety,” which describes the problems with current regulatory and scientific methods. Our view is that decisions about whether to continue or expand genetically engineered crops and foods should be supported by strong scientific evidence of the long-term safety for human and animal health and the environment, which is obtained in a manner that is honest, ethical, rigorous, independent and transparent.

Q: Given the uncertain state of labeling, what can people do to avoid genetically engineered foods?

MH: Choose organic food or products certified by the Non GMO Project, which has verified tens of thousands of foods that don’t contain GMOs or synthetic biology ingredients.

Sep 222016

2016-09-20-1474391842-938121-pictureshoppersguide.pngby Jim Thomas (HuffPost)

Would you put these items on your shopping list?

Gene-silenced apples that don’t rot; synthetic vanilla made with genetically engineered yeast; canola, DNA edited to resist pesticides.

These are just a few of the new genetically engineered products already making their way to a store near you.

We call them GMOs 2.0 — and they may even be misleadingly labeled as “natural.”

How will you know if you’re eating synthetic GMO 2.0 foods or putting them on your body? For those who want to “keep it real,” we have developed a handy Shopper’s Guide to Synthetic Biology. Here are the key things to know.

The GMO market is changing fast

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been in our food for 20 years, but the underlying technology has recently been changing. Corporations are now tinkering with nature in new and riskier ways. They can change a species by editing or deleting genes, turning genes on or off, or even creating whole new DNA sequences on a computer.

Some food and cosmetic companies are now experimenting with synthetic biology. This new field of genetic engineering produces artificial compounds that taste or smell like familiar substances, but don’t actually come from the natural source.

GMOs 2.0 already in products, or making their way to market, include:

  • Synthetic biology versions of food ingredients including vanilla flavour, saffron and stevia.
  • Synthetic biology personal care ingredients, including rose oil, patchouli fragrance and squalane moisturizer.
  • Animal replacement products such as fake cow’s milk (made from genetically engineered yeast, not cows)

Five problems with GMOs 2.0

Companies are rushing synthetic biology GMO products onto the market — without labelling them and without understanding the impact on health, the environment, farmers and communities. Be aware:

1. GMOs 2.0 are unpredictable:

So were GMOs 1.0, for that matter. “When you alter the genetics of living things they don’t always behave as you expect,” says Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union. Some first-generation GMOs had unexpected effects such as unwanted toxic compounds. The next generation may be even more unpredictable. Synthetic biology companies try to present biology as something that can be reliably and predictably altered, but this field is still highly experimental and genetics are poorly understood.

2. Regulations aren’t in place

Many governments require little to no testing to ensure the safety of GMOs, and systems are not in place for adequate oversight to understand the health, environmental and social impacts.

3. There is no evidence to support sustainability claims

Some companies tout GMOs 2.0 as environmentally efficient. But many current synthetic biology products depend on sugar from chemical-intensive monocultures, or other polluting feedstocks such as fracked gas. If GMO 2.0 products such as engineered algae escape into the environment they may become “living pollution.”

4. GMOs 2.0 threaten the livelihoods of farmers

GMO crops linked to patented seeds or chemicals are already displacing farmers around the world. With the new generation of GMOs, traditional plant-based ingredients farmed in sustainable ways by real farmers may be replaced by synthetic biology products produced in labs. My organization, ETC Group, has interviewed farmers around the world who are concerned about the impact of synthetic biology products. The fact is, small farmers feed most of the world. If their livelihoods are undercut by artificial synthetic biology, their families and communities will suffer — along with the fields, forests and web of life that they protect.

5. Putting corporations in charge

A key problem with genetic engineering has been that it puts corporations in charge of our food system with patents that allow them to own the seeds of life. Corporations have incentives to also use the new genetic engineering to maximize profits, not protect people and the planet.

Fake foods, fake promises

For decades, we have been falsely promised that GMOs would solve hunger and protect the environment — yet people still go hungry and instead farmland is saturated with toxic pesticides. Today we are hearing new promises that synthetic biology and GMOs 2.0 will combat climate change, decrease pressure on land or even save endangered species.

But these promises are just industry hype to encourage investment and keep away regulators. Companies touting these technologies have not shared any data to back up sustainability claims, and there are many sustainability concerns when you look at the lifecycle of the products, including the environmental problems of feedstock crops that are grown on land that could be used to feed people.

Instead of falling for false claims about fake foods, we need to build a food system that is truly keeping it real: one that supports small farmers, local communities, consumers and the environment.

Consumers want real, natural foods

A look at trends in the marketplace shows that consumers want real, natural foods and cosmetics — not synthetic biology or GMOs. They want authentic ingredients from real farmers, not corporate labs. They want to know what’s in their food with clear understandable labels not double-speak about “fermentation derived” or “cultured ingredients.” If it’s a GMO — call it a GMO.

As Fortune magazine reported last year, “Major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers swerved to fresh and organic alternatives.”

“It’s pretty simple what people want now: simplicity … less of the ingredients they can’t actually picture in their head.”

3 ways to avoid GMOs 2.0:

1. Buy organic: Organic is best because it ensures that food and ingredients are grown in ways that are better for people and the planet. Organic farmers are not allowed to use genetically engineered crops or synthetic pesticides.

2. Look for Non-GMO Project Verified or Made Safe a‘s trustworthy certifications that ensure products are not genetically engineered or made with synthetic biology.

3. Download the new Shoppers Guide to Synthetic Biology and keep up to date with the latest synthetic biology products and ingredients here.

Sep 202016

shoppers-guide-coverAre GMOs 2.0 in your food and cosmetics? Gene-silenced apples that never look old, synthetic stevia created with genetically engineered algae — these are just some of the new generation of GMOs companies are sneaking into food and consumer products.

This new guide helps consumers avoid the new wave of GMOs and find truly natural and sustainable options.

The 12-page guide is available for free below, and printed copies can be ordered in bulk for the cost of shipping.

The Shopper’s Guide to Synthetic Biology explains:

  • Which GMO 2.0 products are in stores now, or on their way. Examples include synthetic versions of vanilla, stevia and patchouli fragrance.
  • Concerns about GMOs 2.0, including lack of testing, lack of labeling and negative impact on small farmers.
  • How to avoid GMOs 2.0: Buy organic as the best option, or choose products with the Non-GMO Verified or Made Safe certifications that do not allow synthetic biology ingredients.


Read the Synthetic Biology Shopper’s Guide press release
Take part in the Shopper’s Guide webinar – details to be announced soon!

How can I get hold of the Shopper’s Guide?

Consumers can [download id=”2781″]. You will soon also be able to order printed copies to distribute in your business, organization, or community for the cost of shipping. And you can [download id=”2773″], to get the conversation started in your community.

We also have a Syn Bio Free Guide for Companies, available here.

Sep 162016


by ETC Group

Policymakers could still block the agribiz mergers; peasants and farmers will continue the fight for seeds and rights

Wednesday’s confirmation that Monsanto and Bayer have agreed to a $66 billion merger is just the latest of four M&A announcements, but at least three more game-changing mergers are in play (and flying under the radar).  The acquisition activity is no longer just about seeds and pesticides but about global control of agricultural inputs and world food security.  Anti-competition regulators should block these mergers everywhere, and particularly in the emerging markets of the Global South, as the new mega companies will greatly expand their power and outcompete national enterprises.  Four of the world’s top 10 agrochemical purchasing countries are in the global South and account for 28% of the world market.[1] If some of these throw up barriers, shareholders will rebel against the deals regardless of decisions in Washington or Brussels.

“These deals are not just about seeds and pesticides, but also about who will control Big Data in agriculture,” says Pat Mooney of ETC Group, an International Civil Society Organization headquartered in Canada that monitors agribusiness and agricultural technologies. “The company that can dominate seed, soil and weather data and crunch new genomics information will inevitably gain control of global agricultural inputs – seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and farm machinery.”

Neth Daño, ETC’s Asia Director, continues, “Farmers and regulators should be watching out for the seventh M&A – John Deere and Company’s bid to merge its Big Data expertise with Monsanto-owned Precision Planting LLD. After the Bayer-Monsanto merger, it’s not clear whether Precision Planting will go to Deere and Co. or if Bayer will protect its future in agricultural data.” Daño, based in the Philippines, points out that “Deere started connecting its farm machinery to GPS in 2001 and since then has invested heavily in sensors that can track and adjust seed, pesticide and fertilizer inputs meter by meter. The company has 15 years of historic data as well as access to terabytes of other weather, production and market data. Quite literally, Deere and the other farm machinery companies (the top three account for half of the world market) own the box in which the other input enterprises have to dump their products. That means Deere also owns the information.”

Silvia Ribeiro, Director of ETC’s Latin American office, agrees that the latest news confirming Monsanto agreement has “created alarm throughout Latin America and raised big concerns about increased input prices, more privatization of research and huge pressure from these Giant companies to make laws and regulations in our countries that allow them to dominate markets, crush farmers’ rights and make peasant seeds illegal.”

Although the mergers will be contested at the national level around the world, Neth Daño in the Philippines and Silvia Ribeiro in Mexico see the battle moving to a number of international fora in the weeks and months ahead. Daño will be in Indonesia September 27 – 30 when governments, farmers’ organizations and civil society meet to discuss Farmers Rights as part of a legally binding treaty intended to guarantee farmers access and use of seed. “This is an international seed meeting that can’t avoid addressing these mergers,” she asserts. “The hottest topic on the agenda is a Big Data proposal for seeds being pushed by the companies.”

October 17 – 21, Pat Mooney and Silvia Ribeiro will be in Rome attending the UN’s Committee on World Food Security. “Virtually all of the world’s governments, farmer organizations and many agribusinesses companies will be in the same room for a week, with food security on the official agenda. There are going to be a lot of angry people there wanting to stop these mergers,” Ribeiro insists.

December 4–17, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity will be meeting in Mexico where agricultural biodiversity issues are on the agenda. The Convention is famously proactive on seed issues having already set a moratorium against Terminator seeds (seeds genetically modified to die at harvest time forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every growing season) and, as well, a protocol on the trans-boundary movement of transgenic seeds and another protocol that will soon enter into force related to loss and damages caused by GM contamination. When it meets in December, it will debate the risks of a suite of new plant breeding technologies described as “extreme genetic engineering” (synthetic biology) which is much favoured by all the companies now merging as a strategy to sidestep biotech regulations. “Wherever these companies go in the next few months, they are going to have a fight on their hands,” says Silvia Ribeiro.

For further information:

Pat Mooney, Executive Director, ETC Group: 1-613-240-0045 or

Neth Daño, Asia Director, ETC Group: +63 917 532 9369 or

Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America Director, ETC Group: + 52 1 5526 5333 30 or

M&As – Public and Not-So Public

The buying spree started in July 2014 when Monsanto (the world’s #1 seed company; #5 In agrochemicals[2]) launched the first of three runs at Syngenta (#1 in crop chemicals; #3 in seeds[3]).  All offers were rebuffed. Nevertheless, the gambit set all of the Big Six seed/chemical companies in motion…

1.     November 2015 –  ChemChina (who owns the world’s 7th-largest agrochemical company, ADAMA[4]) made a $42 billion bid for Syngenta.[5]  The offer (bumped up to $43 billion) was accepted in February 2016.[6] The deal has passed one of several regulatory hurdles in the USA,[7] but faces challenges in numerous other jurisdictions including, apparently, Canada, Brazil and the EU. It is expected to close by the end of 2016.[8] The merger will give ChemChina “a way to diversify beyond agrochemicals into GM seed technology.”[9]

2.     December 2015 – Dupont (#2 in seeds, #6 in pesticides[10]) and Dow (#5 in seeds, #4 in pesticides[11]) announced their $68 billion merger. It is still pending and under review by antitrust regulators,[12] and the companies optimistically claimed the deal will be done by the end of the year.

3.     May 2016 –  Bayer (#2 in crop chemicals; #7 in seeds[13]) low-balled a bid for Monsanto[14] but the companies eventually reached a deal for $66 billion on September 14 and predict closure by the end of 2017.[15]

4.    August, 2016 – Potash Corp. (#1 in synthetic fertilizers by capacity,[16] #4 by market share[17]) began negotiations with Agrium (#2 in fertilizers by market share[18]).  The deal was agreed September 12, 2016, and was valued at $30 billion. Aside from making the new entity the undisputed No. 1 in fertilizers, it also broadens the base of the enterprise to include seeds and crop chemicals.[19] The deal is expected to close in mid-2017.[20]

As the four negotiations went back and forth, the world’s other significant seed, chemical and fertilizer companies were looking on with a mixture of consternation and anticipation. Since it is highly unlikely that all four mergers can play through without divestitures, ETC predicts that at least two other M&A options are coming down the pipeline…

5.     BASF (#3 in crop chemicals and a modest player in seeds[21]) either has to get bigger or get out, and is undoubtedly calculating the possibility of snapping up any smaller seed and pesticide companies that fall by the wayside if the other mergers proceed. Its second option is to go after the second-string of German, Dutch, US and Japanese seed/pesticide companies to cobble together a larger agricultural footprint.

6.    The same second-string players may be thinking of doing the same thing—either picking up the leftovers or merging themselves. Though alarming to smaller companies, the mashing together of the giant companies also leaves them niches of opportunity.

But a 7th M&A has been playing off stage; important on its own, but also a harbinger of much bigger changes that will impact global agricultural inputs in the months and years ahead…

November 2015 –  Deere & Co. (#1 in farm machinery and nothing much in seeds or chemicals[22]). agreed to buy Monsanto’s Precision Planting LLD.[23] In August 2016, however, Deere was sued by the US Justice Department to block the deal[24] because the merger would allow Deere to “dominate the market for high-speed precision-planting systems and be able to raise prices and slow innovation at the expense of American farmers who rely on these systems”[25]:  Deere and Precision Planting LLD together would account for 86% of the precision planting market.[26]  Deere and Monsanto said they would fight the decision.[27] Bayer may have changed all of this.


[1] Brazil is the world’s largest agrochemical market at US$10 billion, China is the 3rd largest agrochemical market at US$4.5 billion, Argentina is 8th at US$1.5 billion and India is 9th at US$1 billion. Source: ETC Group, “Merge-Santo: New Threat to Food Security.” Briefing Note. March 22, 2016.

[2] 2014 data. ETC Group, “Breaking Bad: Big Ag Mega-Mergers in Play.” ETC Group Communique 115. December 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Aaron Kirchfield, Ed Hammond, Dinesh Nair, “ChemChina Is in Talks to Acquire Syngenta.” Bloomberg News, Nov 12 2015 – 5pm EST.

[6] Anonymous, “ChemChina Offers Over $43 Billion for Syngenta” Bloomberg News, February 3, 2016.

[7] Michael Shields and Greg Roumeliotis, “U.S. Clearance for ChemChina deal sends Syngenta stock soaring.” The Globe and Mail. August 22, 2016.

[8] Syngenta, “ChemChina and Syngenta receive clearance from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS),” Press Release, August 22, 2016.

[9] Lindsay Whipp and Christian Sheperd, “Takeover green light sparks anger in US.” Financial Times. September 7, 2016. (printed edition).

[10] 2014 data. Anonymous, “Top 20 Global Agrochem Firms: Growth Slowing Down,” 30 October 2015; company reporting.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jacob Bunge, “DuPont CEO Says Merger With Dow Still on Track.” The Wall Street Journal. July 26, 2016.

[13] 2014 data. Anonymous, “Top 20 Global Agrochem Firms,”

[14] Jacob Bunge and Dana Mattioli, “Bayer Proposes to Acquire Monsanto.” The Wall Street Journal. May 19, 2016.

[15] Greg Roumeliotis and Ludwig Burger, “Bayer clinches Monsanto with improved $66 billion bid” Reuters. September 15, 2016.

[16] Reuters, “Agrium and Potash Corp Are Merging to Make a Giant Fertilizing Company.” Fortune. September 12, 2016.

[17] 2014 Data. ETC Group, “Breaking Bad”

[18] 2014 Data. ETC Group, from publicly available information.

[19] Guy Chazan and James Fontanella-Khan, “Bayer urged by Monsanto shareholders to raise bid further.” Financial Times. September 6, 2016.

[20] Rod Nickel and Siddarth Cavale, “Fertilizer majors Potash and Agrium to merge, face tough scrutiny.” Reuters. September 12, 2016.

[21] 2014 data. Anonymous “Top 20 Global Agrochem Firms.”

[22] ETC Group, compiled from company reports

[23]John Deere & Company, “John Deere and The Climate Corporation Expand Options for Farmers.” Press Release. November 3, 2015.

[24] United States Department of Justice, “Justice Department Sues to Block Deere’s Acquisition of Precision Planting.” Press Release. August 31, 2016.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

Sep 092016
Martyn Fletcher via Flickr

Martyn Fletcher via Flickr

by Claire Hope Cummings (Project Syndicate)

HONOLULU – A cynical move is underway to promote a new, powerful, and troubling technology known as “gene drives” for use in conservation. This is not just your everyday genetic modification, known as “GMO”; it is a radical new technology, which creates “mutagenic chain reactions” that can reshape living systems in unimaginable ways.

Gene drives represent the next frontier of genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and gene editing. The technology overrides the standard rules of genetic inheritance, ensuring that a particular trait, delivered by humans into an organism’s DNA using advanced gene-editing technology, spreads to all subsequent generations, thereby altering the future of the entire species.

It is a biological tool with unprecedented power. Yet, instead of taking time to consider fully the relevant ethical, ecological, and social issues, many are aggressively promoting gene-drive technology for use in conservation.

One proposal aims to protect native birds on Hawaii’s Kauai Island by using gene drives to reduce the population of a species of mosquito that carries avian malaria. Another plan, championed by a conservation consortium that includes US and Australian government agencies, would eradicate invasive, bird-harming mice on particular islands by introducing altered mice that prevent them from producing female offspring. Creating the “daughterless mouse” would be the first step toward so-called Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents (GBIRd), designed to cause deliberate extinctions of “pest” species like rats, in order to save “favored” species, such as endangered birds.

The assumption underlying these proposals seems to be that humans have the knowledge, capabilities, and prudence to control nature. The idea that we can – and should – use human-driven extinction to address human-caused extinction is appalling.

I am not alone in my concern. At the ongoing International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, a group of leading conservationists and scientists issued an open letter, entitled “A Call for Conservation with a Conscience,” demanding a halt to the use of gene drives in conservation. I am one of the signatories, along with the environmental icon David Suzuki, physicist Fritjof Capra, the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Tom Goldtooth, and organic pioneer Nell Newman.

The discussions that have begun at the IUCN congress will continue at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Mexico this December, when global leaders must consider a proposed global moratorium on gene drives. Such discussions reflect demands by civil-society leaders for a more thorough consideration of the scientific, moral, and legal issues concerning the use of gene drives.

As I see it, we are simply not asking the right questions. Our technological prowess is largely viewed through the lens of engineering, and engineers tend to focus on one question: “Does it work?” But, as Angelika Hilbeck, President of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) argues, a better question would be: “What else does it do?”

When it comes to the GBIRd project, for example, one might ask whether the “daughterless mouse” could escape the specific ecosystem into which it has been introduced, just as GMO crops and farmed salmon do, and what would happen if it did. As for the mosquitos in Hawaii, one might ask how reducing their numbers would affect the endangered hoary bat species.

Ensuring that these kinds of questions are taken into account will be no easy feat. As a lawyer experienced in US government regulations, I can confidently say that the existing regulatory framework is utterly incapable of assessing and governing gene-drive technology.

Making matters worse, the media have consistently failed to educate the public about the risks raised by genetic technologies. Few people understand that, as MIT science historian Lily Kay explains, genetic engineering was deliberately developed and promoted as a tool for biological and social control. Those driving that process were aiming to fulfill a perceived mandate for “science-based social intervention.”

Powerful tools like genetic modification and, especially, gene-drive technology spark the imagination of anyone with an agenda, from the military (which could use them to make game-changing bio-weapons) to well-intentioned health advocates (which could use them to help eradicate certain deadly diseases). They certainly appeal to the hero narrative that so many of my fellow environmentalists favor.

But the fact is that we have not created the intellectual infrastructure to address the fundamental challenges that gene drives – not to mention other powerful technologies – raise. And now we are supposed to suspend our critical faculties and trust the techno-elites’ promise to use gene drives responsibly in the service of seemingly positive environmental goals. No open public discussion is needed, apparently. But why should we blindly believe that everything is under control?

In my view, the focus on using gene-drive technology for conservation is a ruse to gain public acceptance and regulatory cover. Why expose something to public scrutiny and possible restraints when you can usher it in through the back door by pretending it will do some good? The risks are too obvious for gene-drive advocates to risk talking about them.

In my 20-plus years of researching and reporting on transgenic technologies, I thought I had seen the worst of the false promises and hype that they engender. But gene drives are unlike anything we have witnessed, and amount to the ultimate test of our self-control. Can we really trust science to guide us, or do we recklessly throw in our lot with technological “silver bullets” as the way forward?

Fortunately, we still have a choice. The fact that gene drives can change the basic relationship between humanity and the natural world is both a challenge and an opportunity. We can do now what we should have done a long time ago, with regard to both nuclear and transgenic technologies: start paying more attention to the dangers of human ingenuity – and more respect to the genius of nature.

Sep 092016

Watch the Livestream of Wednesday’s public meeting on Gene Drives in Hawaii, part of the series of events that took place to coincide with the ICUN conference. Hosted by Hawaii SEED.

Host: Claire Cummings, journalist and author
Speakers: Walter Ritte – Native Hawaiin activist, Hokolei Lindsey – Native Hawaiin legal scholar, Dana Perls – Friends of the Earth, and Jim Thomas – ETC Group.